SLAM goes behind the scenes with the ESPN crew.
by Cub Buenning (All Photos, including the one of Cub interviewing Mark Jackson: Eric Bakke/ESPN)
With the majority of the second quarter of Game 3 of the NBA’s Western Conference Final between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Denver Nuggets in the books, the fast-paced commotion of ESPN’s production truck briefly slows to ponder which player should be the halftime interview. The usual suspects of Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant are thrown back and forth between the directors and producers. Courtside reporter Doris Burke, in a seemingly constant conservation with these television puppet masters, waits for the final decision from senior coordinating producer, Tim Corrigan, as he wonders aloud whether Kobe will make a late run, warranting the intermission attention.
Corrigan had earlier proclaimed that Denver’s Chris “Birdman” Andersen was the story of the first-half and when they finally settle on Melo, Corrigan is quick to suggest an inquiry for Burke. As the suggestion was put forth to ask Melo about the play of Birdman, Corrigan was putting together, through his editing department, a series of highlights of the uber-popular reserve big man. Moments later, as Melo finishes his first response, Burke poses the prompted question and director Jimmy Moore cues up the two highlights which run while Melo expounds on Birdman’s impact on the game thus far.
This sequence of television “basic-ness” becomes luminous as it comes to life not only on the main feed inside a cramped-in trailer in the bowels of the Pepsi Center, but on television sets around the world.
Three hours earlier, the aforementioned parties were enjoying the wide-open spaces of the arena’s main floor; courtside, discussing the evening with the voices and faces that bring the action to life, are Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson. The trio have similar duties for this year’s NBA Finals and have given the SLAMonline readers a “member’s only” view of the game. Having a former (maybe not for long) head coach and a veteran NBA point-guard to break down the ins-and-outs of the game is obviously a plus and more of a necessity since the Hubie Browns and Mike Fratellos started breaking down the game on national TV in between their storied and numerous coaching gigs.
Van Gundy is the opinionated, mouthy, but intelligent voice that seems to be watching from his couch as he calls attention droves of small idiosyncrasies of not only the game itself, but of individual coaches and players, as well. “You don’t have the extreme lows of a bad loss in this job,” Van Gundy says matter-of-factly. “But you never feel the high of accomplishing something special.”
Jackson is the cerebral former floor-general that has been linked to dozens of coaching vacancies since his retirement from the game in ’04; he has a concise, direct way of explaining things that speaks to the years of peer direction he gave on the court. “I’m watching the best sport in the world and I have the greatest seat in the house,” states the New York City native that now calls Los Angeles home.
Anchoring the ship and giving vocal background for the live action, is Breen, who doubles as the longtime voice of the New York Knicks on MSG. While his grasp of the game is beyond reproach, Breen provides a great mix of game flow and a real ability to jump into Van Gundy and Jackson’s side discussions, as well as patrolling the mayhem.
“Mike goes through the same thing that we do as coaches, because he is a professional broadcaster; he analyzes it more, where I would analyze it more from a coaching prospective” says Van Gundy, the former Knick and Rocket boss. “But I don’t sit at home and beat myself up over this.”
Van Gundy’s former point guard in both Gotham and Clutch City is equally effusive with praise for Breen. “Mike has been really tremendous, really teaching both Coach and I and helping us,” says Jackson. “Mike does an outstanding job of being a professional and showing us the ropes.”
Although only a working triumvirate for the past two seasons, this grouping might not be as foreign to each other as one might think. To be honest, these guys have had a working relationship with each other since the early ’90s. Just as Breen was taking on some on-air responsibilities with MSG, Jackson was an established Knickerbocker leader and JVG was a young assistant learning the ropes under Hall-of-Fame coach Pat Riley.
“Coming in, you felt more comfortable,” mentions Van Gundy. “Mike does an amazing job and Mark is definitely more polished than I am so when I get saying whatever it is that I’m saying, Mike has the ability to gently pull us back around.”
Says Jackson: “To do this job with two guys that I’ve known for a long time, it’s almost like we’re sitting at a restaurant. What you see on game night is the same exact thing you would see if you came out to dinner with us.” (More on this thought to come in the post-Finals issue of the magazine.)
But to spend any amount of time with these guys quickly gives substance to why there is such on-air comfort. Burke, the trio’s courtside compatriot for this series, tells a story of hearing a group pile out of an elevator and the dialogue between Jackson and Van Gundy seemed as if it was lifted directly off the telecast from the night before.
“The door opens and all you hear is a constant stream of give and take. ‘Man, you’re crazy!’ Mark is saying and then Jeff goes, ‘You’re out of your mind.’ It goes back and forth,” says Burke, who can claim the distinction of being the only on-air personality to be involved in both the NBA and WNBA Finals (where she provides analysis alongside Mike Patrick). “What you hear them do on air is exactly what they are doing off it.”
That type of familiarity is present through out any telecast of this group, but as the stakes get higher, so must the talent’s “game.” Rest assured, all involved are more than aware of their duties as gatekeepers of the most important of contests, the NBA Finals.
Well, at least some are serious about the assignment. “You could put a lot of guys doing this job and the same amount of people is going to watch,” says Van Gundy. “Certain people are going to like what you say; other people won’t like what you say.” The coach then came out of his “Alfred E. Neuman, What, Me Worry?” shell to offer this gem about the nature of the job. “You know you are getting it close when both sets of fans think you hate their team. At least you’ve balanced out the disgust.”
“I truly embrace the fact and know that it’s an honor to be calling the Western Conference Finals and the NBA Finals,” says Jackson, a St. John ’s alum that studied the broadcasting craft while not killing Big East opponents on the court. “I am a kid that grew up a huge sports fan, and I understand the moment increases as you go further. It’s incredible, and I’m extremely proud to be a part of it.”
Of course, the basketball IQ and historical prospective on the ESPN “team” goes far beyond the four voices that describe the action. Behind the scenes, calls for replays, code words for the different cameras and edits are vocalized as a cacophony of confusion that ultimately produces visual perfection. Those individuals pulling the strings on the whole operation are basketball diehards, themselves, with a long past of working with and cheering for the NBA game. A fact that should be present as the product provides more information, angles and replays that even the most involved fan can endure.
“We’ve been really fortunate with the emergence of the young stars, like Chris Paul, Dwight Howard and LeBron,” explains the network’s Vice President of Production, Bob Rauscher. “You start to look and realize it’s not just one or two teams, but we have good games and match-ups night after night, in both conferences.”
Back in the production truck, the hoops knowledge is present just in how those behind-the-scenes watch the game, as seasoned pros, as well. Not only are they calling the shots on the televised images, but they have to be aware of the ebbs and flows of the game. Whether it’s noticing a limping superstar, a back-up forward checking in at the scorer’s table, or a young center possibly cramping from the altitude; these guys are more than just “punching the clock.”
Ultimately, however, all that matters to the viewer is their experience watching. To make this a positive one, the cameras have to be in the right spot, the editing has to be flawless and there must be entertainment, entertainment, entertainment. As Burke, the former Providence College point guard, puts it perfectly when describing the normal basketball fan’s experience of watching a game: “When I watch a game at home, what do I want? I want to be instructed, which I am, I want to smile, which I do; I want to laugh at times and at the end of the game in special moments, I want to be thinking that this coach is thinking ‘x’ and this player is thinking ‘x.’ They deliver on everything; they are extraordinary.”
Why this group, though, has had such success, again, goes beyond the smoothness of their voices or their collective grasp of the game of basketball. “With Coach, the great thing is that, there are people that have to fake chemistry and there are people that have chemistry,” says Jackson. “There is absolutely nothing that he can say to me or that I could say to him that would be a cheap-shot; we do it all the time. He’s an outstanding coach, a great basketball mind and a friend.”